Interesting Times

Over the last few days, the odd weather patterns managed to send the already bad neuropathy, arthritis, and migraines into unexplored territories of misery.

That in and of itself isn’t exactly news. What made things interesting was an additional series of technical malfunctions. My iPad died, and a few hours later I took a bad fall while carrying my phone. The screen shattered, sending slivers of glass into my palm that took hours to dig out.

I guess I could rewrite that Blondie lyric:

Once I had a phone and it was a gas
Fell on my face and had a hand of glass

It was a cheap phone, so a replacement is on the way. I have a camera in the office I can use for videos. So, it’s not a big deal—but the additional frustration atop my daily load made things less than fun. Not shelling for another iPad.

In other news, work is moving along on Zen in the Five-String Banjo. I will be uploading one last public preview before moving the project to Patreon.

I do not have any publishing plans in place for this new book. The current cost of printing and shipping closes the independent publishing route we used for my earlier work. So, right now, the plan is no plan at all. Write the thing and see what comes of it.

I thrashed out the original draft in the same insane timeframe as The How and the Tao of Old-Time Banjo. Back in 2004, we simply added in the tab to the thrashed-out manuscript and tried to repair my grammar. This time around, I decided to slow down and work over the pages.

As stated before, feedback would be appreciated.

For the folks worried about my hands, fret not. The switch to the solid-body electric banjo as my main instrument has been a joy. The electric is the easiest playing banjo I have ever picked up.

The main challenge in the switch has been adjusting to the sustain of the electric. Playing acoustic, I used percussion and strums to fill out the sound. On the electric, that approach mainly creates noise.

With the electric, I am learning to make even heavier use of rests. There are effects built into my amp that make for some lovely ambient sounds under the melody. It’s different from playing the acoustic, but simultaneously similar enough to feel like home.

If I was having an instrument like this built from scratch, I would keep the three-pickup layout. That middle pickup is sweet. I would add acoustic saddles to the bridge, to mix in a touch of thumb-thump when appropriate. The Strat shape more or less works, but I’d move the controls from the lower left to the upper right. That would allow working the knobs and switches while playing.

I was watching a video about Brian May’s Red Special guitar. It made me smile because Dear Old Dad and I have been experimenting with the concept on an electric banjo for over fifteen years. Pop and I are not exactly the brain trust that is the May family, but we didn’t do so bad. Leave it to fathers and sons to come up with a different approach. Once I get some new pickups, my electric banjo will be a beast.

Gearwise, if anybody has some volume/expression pedals to trade, please let me know. The only other gear I need to scrounge up are foot controllers for my Katana amp.

Additionally, now that I am getting used to the Boss amp, there really is no need to keep the Spark 40. I have that, a Riff, and a pair of foot controllers to trade.

Well, I have to set up my spare camera to film workshops during the week. It’s awful moving gear and plugging in cables with these hands, but I’ll make the most of it. I’m trying to figure out how to balance out my voice with the electric while recording. It isn’t simple with my hearing, but we’ll figure it out.

Essential Movies for Musicians: The Disciple (2020)

The Disciple (2020) follows the training of a young Indian classical vocalist. That is literally all I can say about the film without ruining it.

Most critics see this film as a study of failure and mediocrity. Because of the unusual ending, it can seem as though the protagonist is giving up on music.

I love this movie, but it’s an art film. It is long and slow, but that is fitting because this is about the life of an artist. We see him fail, we see him practice, feel jealousy, frustration, and other aspects of his life as he pursues his muse.

There is one scene with a music critic that I had to rewind and watch several times, simply because Americans don’t cut through the nonsense this clearly. It is an eye-opening and life-altering conversation, and I have been on both sides of that table more than a few times.

I will not spell out a conclusion for you, but I will say one thing: I walked offstage in 1997 and have not performed willingly many times since. Did I give up on music?

Going Electric: An Old-Timer’s Thoughts

Back in the 90s, Dear Old Dad and I, among other things, ran a country music theater. The Eastern Shore Opry. We made it a point not to perform much in the shows we produced. When you are working backstage and promoting, you need to focus on that rather than your ego. Play a song, wave to the crowd, and get back to work.

After one of the shows, I was cornered by Tom Gray and James Bailey. The two Country Gentlemen alumni demanded to know where I learned to play the banjo. I was told that nobody plays the old frailing anymore, and that what I was doing was special.

I got similar treatment when we were traveling to film for The Down Neck Gazette. Even in Galax, Virginia, people got weird when I started to play. Frailing was the lost technique. One old coot even walked up and said to me, “I haven’t heard real old-time banjo like that in twenty or thirty years.”

A run through the available workshops in our video archives offers a glimpse at what I can do with an acoustic banjo.

I am starting with this to point out that going electric is not about reinventing frailing banjo. I am looking to see how far I can push the technique and my skill.

The Banjo

Patrick and his electric banjo
I love playing slide with a bit of compression.

We have tried several prototypes blending various body styles and amplification systems. Nothing really worked. The problem was like what we experienced with resophonic banjos, in that nothing worked as expected.

Here is the basic formula that worked for me:

  • Bolt-on five-string banjo neck
  • Solid body with three pickups
  • Hardtail tailpiece

The neck on my electric banjo is maple, and rather heavy. I am unsure if a lighter weight neck would impact the tone.

Acoustic action is familiar, but you lose the up the neck notes. You don’t need a banjo head on your electric. Any acoustic element is just going to complicate things.

The three-pickup layout of a Stratocaster, in my experience, works best for a banjo. As much as I love a Telecaster, the middle pickup gives me the most banjo-like response. Go figure.

We used a 7-string hardtail bridge for my banjo. It works like a charm with no hassle.

Interestingly, the super cheap pickups that came with the Strat clone body we used for my banjo sound fantastic. While I do have new wiring for my banjo on the wish list, there is no rush. What I have works.

The Amp

The amplifier plays more of a role in the response of the electric than I expected.

I initially bought a Spark 40. It’s a great little amp. Tone for days. The amplifier models and effects make it an exciting little tool. On the downside, on my unit, Bluetooth cuts off at random. This isn’t a problem when I am noodling. Being forced to reboot the app on either Android or iOS made it problematic for workshops. The Spark Control and an aftermarket foot controller had similar issues. As a practice tool, it’s wonderful – but I needed something both more reliable and flexible.

Enter the Boss Katana Artist MKII. I love this amp. It’s 100 watts of stunning. This amp does everything but wash my hair. I only wish it weighed less than a 1974 Plymouth Fury III.

Once I pick up a foot controller and a pair of expression pedals, I will have enough gear to stay busy for the rest of my life. I can even add a second speaker cabinet and run it as a stereo amp.

For silent practice, my solid body banjo is loud enough to practice unplugged. If I want to rock out without scaring the neighbors, I use a Vox VGH AC30 headphone amp. It’s loud enough that even I can hear it.

Gear Wish List

There are only a few things I still need to scrounge up.

  • GA-FC foot controller
  • 2 expression pedals
  • New pickups/wiring

The question of pickups turns out to be simpler than expected. Much like banjo tone rings, most of what people say about pickups is nonsense. I’ll probably just replace all the electronics with an off-the-shelf prewired pickguard.  I like the sounds of the Lace rainbow setup, but the Fender Tex-Mex would also work. The goal is simplicity and reliability in addition to tone.

I thought about a looper. I did. It’s a cool concept, and I have had fun with them in the past, but after one or two songs it starts to get silly.

The Playing Experience

Yes. Playing a solid-body electric five-string banjo is different from playing an acoustic.

The depth and shape of the body have forced me to adjust my technique a bit. Moreover, it took me time getting used to pickup selection having more impact on tone than placement of the strike.

The only difference that threw me was the openness of the fretboard. It is as easy to fret the 18th fret as the first. It makes noodling with scale runs a joy, even with my arthritic hands.

What About Tradition?

Banjo players have been trying to go electric for the last hundred years.

Eddie Peabody and Rickenbacker:

Buck Trent:

1939 Gibson EBT 150:

1937 Vega Deluxe: